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Rocky Mountain physics

I arrived in Denver on Saturday and had a fantastic Sunday touring the mountains with an old physicist friend of mine who lives just outside of the city. While most of our tour involved taking in the beautiful scenery of the Rocky Mountain foothills, it had a definite physics theme.

Steve’s a bit of an expert on magnetic data storage and Colorado is definitely the place for him, with both Seagate and StorageTek having “campuses” outside of Denver. That magnetic attraction might have something to do with NIST in nearby Boulder, which is home to some world’s leading experts on magnetic devices.

Steve used to work at NIST and was keen to get us up into the mountains — which begin just behind Boulder — for a better view. From a lookout on Flagstaff Mountain we could see NIST, JILA (home to three Nobel laureates) and the NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory. Not part of the vista, but also in Boulder is the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). And of course, there is the University of Colorado — not bad for a place with less than 100,000 people!

A few miles outside of Boulder we travelled across a flat, stoney and desolate plateau aptly named “Rocky Flats”. Until very recently this was home to a US government nuclear weapons production facility, where a friend of Steve’s used to make triggers for hydrogen bombs. Now mostly demolished, the plant was the raided by the FBI in 1989 over allegations of poor safety and the illegal dumping of waste.

But you’ll be relieved to hear that the highlight of the tour had absolutely nothing to do with physics. We went up to the town of Evergreen, which is nestled in a steep valley in the first range of the Rockies. The town has a pretty little lake that was dotted with people ice fishing. Being Canadian, Steve and I couldn’t resist walking out onto the ice (which was at least a foot thick) to see if the fish were biting. The fish were not obliging, but it was a lovely warm sunny day and folks were sitting on the ice in lawn chairs sunning themselves — a fantastic sight. Back at the hoteI I looked at myself in the mirror, and sure enough I had managed to get a sunburn out on the ice!

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